Referendums are a great tool, if used properly. Typically a referendum is a great way to gauge public opinion however, it can also be used as a tool of manipulation. Before I get into the details outlining the pros and cons of a referendum, let’s take a look at what one is. This is for those of you who have heard the term but may not be precisely sure what the fuss is all about.
What Is A Referendum?
A referendum is a voting opportunity. The main purpose of a referendum is to give the general voting public a way to voice their opinion on a specific issue or proposal. The end result normally produces changes in either a binding or advisory capacity. A referendum can be used to make decisions on such things as changing a law or to increase taxes for a community project.
Referendums are a form of direct democracy. Direct democracy is essentially where everyone votes on everything. Don’t like how the roads are being plowed? Take it to a referendum. Don’t like the colour of the fire hydrants in the community? Take it to a referendum. As extreme as those examples may be, there are advantages and disadvantages to this decision process.
Direct Democracy – The Good
1 – Major Transparency
You want more transparency from your local, provincial or federal government? Direct democracy is the way to go. The voters and the governing body have even footing here because both have to discuss any and all plans in public. There’s not a lot of room for hidden agendas or secret meetings. The interesting thing to keep in mind here is that when all decisions go to referendum, if they succeed, the credit goes to the people. If the decisions end up miserable failures, then the blame also goes to the voters. You can’t point fingers at your government because they left the decision making up to you.
2 – Serious Government Accountability
Because voters get their say on everything, it forces a higher level of accountability from your local government. In other words, they can’t say they were not very clear on what the popular opinion of the people was. With referendum results saying that the people want a specific result, there is no way of denying that the results are not a reflection of the will of the voting public.
3 – Less Bitching About Stuff
One interesting thing about letting the voters in the area make all the decisions is that they tend to be a bit happier. That’s because they have a direct connection to the changes that are made because they chose them. When you have something to do with making the rules, you are likely to accept them and comply with them. Also, with this kind of involvement, voters are more interested in becoming involved in making changes that can affect them.
Direct Democracy – The Bad
1 – Too Many Things To Decide
On the downside of voting on every single possible decision that has to be made, is the fact that a lot of issues may just end up unresolved. Even in a small town setting, voters could spend all day for more than a day a month doing nothing but voting. Do we paint the parking lines on the street this year? When should we start? How long should it take? What type of paint should be used?
2 – The Overall Yawn Factor
Oddly enough, when the people get a chance to vote on everything, a number of them will eventually tire of the process. That’s because having to listen to all the presentations and debates on both sides of each and every issue will become time that could have been spent doing something more productive. Voter turnout would decrease and the results may no longer properly reflect the general feeling of the community as a whole.
3 – Tension From Dissention
Imagine having a dozen public votes in the first month of a new local government. For those who did not have their wishes met as a result of the votes – we’ll just call them the NOs in this example – complying with each decision they don’t really support can result in tension. Neighbours may become enemies. Movements may rise to fight upcoming votes on particular issues. It could become a real mess over time.
Direct Democracy – The Ugly
Well, what really has a lot of influence on how a particular decision is made through referendum is a relatively small part of the equation. That is the actual wording of the referendum question. This is where referendums have turned into tools of manipulation. The wording is so important in that it has to be basic enough to be understood by all voters and it has to be specific enough to give the governing body a clear directive after the results are tallied.
Another possible problem with referendums is how they are promoted. That is to say, what information is getting out there to the people who will be making the decision? If the information is somewhat skewed, it has a direct affect on the ability for voters to make an informed decision. In a way, the promotion of an issue with a slight leaning towards a desired outcome can lead a number of voters to cast their ballot supporting that message.
Here’s another interesting point. If a governing body chose to let the people decide on everything through a form of direct democracy (referendums, as an example) then what is the point of voting for a local government in the first place? We vote for a Town Council (representative democracy) based on the belief that the people we choose to represent us, or speak on our behalf, are doing so with our best interests as their guiding principles.
If we trust that our selected local government representatives are actually doing this, then flooding the voters with proposals to vote on regularly in a referendum format is not only a waste of taxpayers’ money, it is a waste of taxpayers’ time. Myself, personally, I would question why we voted these individuals into office if all they are doing is dodging the tough decisions and leaving it up to you and me to decide what they should do on any issue.
I’m not convinced that referendums are the way to go on all major issues. However, I do believe that major decisions that will have an effect on the community as a whole have to be community-driven decisions. The monthly community forum concept, which was just introduced this past weekend (January 14, 2018) I think, is a great first step. If elected to Princeton Town Council I would strongly suggest that a monthly public meeting be held through the entire 4-year term.
The format of the meeting can be to inform, share and discuss matters of direct concern to the voting public. I believe that by being accessible to the residents in this manner will foster better communication between local government and local voters. It brings concerns to the forefront that are of interest to the voters and not what local government thinks is of interest to local voters. However, in order for community-driven initiatives to be successful, the community has to get involved and participate in the process. To me, this is not through a referendum.
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My name is George Elliott. I have been in the Media Industry since 1978. I spent 23 years in Broadcasting and worked in a total of six different radio stations located in southern British Columbia Canada during my career. In 2000 I switched gears and moved into the Print Media Industry at a small town, local weekly community newspaper. In 2004 I bought the paper and operated it with my wife, Brenda until July 2016 when we closed it. I launched a freelance web content and article writing business from my home in January 2014.